Michael Bennet’s Family Fled the Nazis. Now, He Won’t Give Up on Ukraine.

Chet Strange for The Washington Post
Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) at his home in Denver this month. Bennet has repeatedly advocated for aid to Ukraine.

Michael F. Bennet’s entire family history came into focus as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stood beneath a portrait of George Washington.

The Democratic senator from Colorado can trace the lineage of his father – Douglas J. Bennet, a longtime Washington operator turned statesman turned university president – to ships that followed the Mayflower to North America and to ancestors who lived through the American Revolution and rebuilt the union after the Civil War.

Bennet’s mother, Susanne Klejman Bennet, was born to a secular Jewish family in Poland in 1938 and smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto as a toddler. His grandparents each later escaped the Holocaust, immigrating to New York in 1950.

Bennet has emerged as a leading voice in Washington for additional U.S. support for Ukraine, drawing on all of his family’s history: the pilgrims and pioneers who made the United States the world’s leading power, and the migrants and refugees who found a haven in this country and helped construct modern America.

“He feels a sense of obligation that is generational,” said Jonathan Davidson, chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security and Bennet’s chief of staff from 2011 to 2020.

The United States has sent Ukraine about $111 billion in aid since Russia invaded in late February 2022. President Biden has asked Congress for an additional $60 billion for Ukraine, as part of a national security spending package to support Israel, provide global humanitarian aid, add security to the U.S.-Mexico border, and counter Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific region.

But some Republicans in Congress – especially in the GOP-controlled House, at times egged on by former president Donald Trump – have balked at the spending, saying that border security is a more urgent need than Ukraine’s sovereignty and that the United States has spent too much already on a war that has ground to a stalemate.

In September, Bennet nearly blocked legislation to avert a government shutdown because the bill did not include money for Ukraine. He voted against another funding measure in November for the same reason. On Dec. 13, he threw up procedural hurdles to delay a vote on the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act as yet another protest over missing Ukraine aid.

On Dec. 14, he blocked a vote on the must-pass reauthorization measure for the Federal Aviation Administration, forcing lawmakers to remain in Washington into this week to continue negotiations on a Ukraine funding package. He released that block Wednesday evening after Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) committed in a joint statement to continuing negotiations on aid to Kyiv in the new year.

“I know I’ve tested your patience,” Bennet said during an emotional floor speech last week. “I don’t think there is anything that anybody who is here will ever do in this Senate that’s going to be more important than the vote we’re going to take on additional funding for Ukraine. I think we’re either going to establish, or reestablish, America’s very special place in this world and our leadership of free countries and democracies around the world, or we are going to squander that.”

His push for Ukraine has also pulled Bennet into discussions about new U.S.-Mexico border restrictions that Republicans say they must have to back the war funding. He’s drawing on lessons from failed 2013 immigration talks as he works with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.), the lead negotiators.

The discussions are coming down to the wire as the year ends. White House officials have repeatedly said Ukraine could soon be dangerously short on weapons and other supplies, and the administration entered the immigration talks in recent days to try to clear the logjam.

Wearing a battlefield green sweater last week to address the Senate under Washington’s visage, Zelensky pleaded for $60 billion in U.S. aid to push back against a nearly two-year Russian invasion, the first major land war in Europe since the one in the 1940s that Bennet’s mother and grandparents escaped.

Zelensky told the Senate that his country would fight to the last man, Bennet said, even if Congress cuts off funding.

“They will never give up because they will never submit to a tyrant,” said Bennet, who has compared Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and the genocide of his mother’s Jewish community. “They will always fight for freedom. They understand what freedom is.”

It’s a sentiment that those closest to Bennet say the senator identifies with personally – that the trauma that befell his mother and grandparents is alive and persists in Ukraine’s struggle.

“I do think there’s a tendency to say we live in some sort of modern era where we’ve eclipsed these challenges, and just when you believe that’s true, you get dragged back in,” Bennet told The Washington Post during a series of interviews. “Whether it’s the Russians invading Ukraine or Hamas invading Israel, there are things in the medieval character of the world that don’t change.”

A family’s escape

As Adolf Hitler massed the Nazi military at Poland’s border in 1939, one of Jakob Klejman’s clients pleaded with him to flee Warsaw with his family. Klejman, an art dealer, counted the city’s luminaries – titans of commerce, diplomats and more – as customers. A German journalist, according to Klejman family lore, issued the warning. Klejman refused to leave but allowed a Swedish diplomat to take some of his gallery’s most valuable art for safekeeping.

When the Klejman family was imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, Jakob used the precious works to barter with guards, allowing Susanne to be smuggled to safety. Her mother, Halina, hid with nuns. Her father, Jakob, escaped through the sewer system. They stayed in hiding in the Polish countryside until the end of the war.

The diplomat brought them to Stockholm to rebuild their lives, then sent them to Mexico City, then finally in 1950 to New York, to the only country where Jakob – now John – and Halina truly felt safe. They rebuilt their art gallery. They became U.S. citizens. They kvelled over the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, the presidents who they were certain saved their lives.

And that, rather than the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto, was what the Klejman-Bennet household discussed.

“Until I was in my 20s, I don’t think that I really knew that my grandparents were Jewish,” said Bennet, who was raised without much religious presence and identifies as a nondenominational Christian. “They completely blocked it out.”

John’s children and grandchildren figured the family patriarch developed Alzheimer’s disease in his old age, robbing the family of his memories of the escape from Warsaw. Instead, an autopsy found, he had sustained brain trauma from years of beatings in the ghetto, Bennet said.

“My grandmother, in particular, followed politics religiously and paid attention to it every single day and had very strong opinions about it every single day,” Bennet said. “I think she believed very strongly that one of the great things about this country was that she could be a participant in a democracy and have an opinion about what was going on in the democracy and be able to vote, notwithstanding the fact that she was born a million miles away and [had] gone through the tragedies that she’d gone through.”

American politics, in a way, became their new religion, a way to separate from the trauma they endured and participate in their adopted homeland. On the occasion of Michael’s first birthday, they wrote him a prayer.

“The ancient Greeks gave the world the high ideals of democracy, in search of which your dear mother and we came to the hospitable shores of beautiful American in 1950,” they wrote. “We have been happy here ever since, beyond our greatest dreams and expectations, with democracy, freedom, and love, humanity’s greatest treasure. We hope that when you grow up, you will help to develop in other parts of the world a greater understanding of these American values.”

That has weighed on him over the years, those closest to Bennet say. It helped make the deliberate, cerebral Bennet a strategic, analytical senator when he was appointed to the chamber in 2009 to replace Sen. Ken Salazar (D), who joined President Barack Obama’s cabinet. Then-Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter (D) devoted most of his interview with Bennet to foreign policy, he said. He wanted to challenge Bennet, then the superintendent of Denver public schools, to prove he had the chops to fit into the upper chamber of Congress.

Bennet responded by talking about his family, his mother and grandparents’ escape from the Nazis – about how that defined the role the United States ought to play on the world stage and the stakes involved in serving in the Senate.

“Learning that, it did provide texture to his own life story and his own thinking, about justice, about democracy, about dictators,” Ritter said. “And that all just made a lot of sense.”

A shutdown threat

Just after lunch on Sept. 30, Senate Republicans walked away from a nearly finished deal with Democrats to avert a government shutdown and provide renewed funding for Ukraine, choosing to stand instead with Kyiv skeptics in the GOP-controlled House and block the aid.

That left Senate Democrats in their late-afternoon conference meeting with what many described as a gut-wrenching choice: pass legislation to keep the government open before a midnight deadline, or risk a shutdown to insist on Ukraine funding.

The decision, politically, was simple, lawmakers privately conceded: Democrats could not shut down the government over Ukraine.

Bennet rose at his party’s closed meeting in a fury to object. Imagine my mother, he told fellow Democrats, and the damage her extended family sustained during the Holocaust – how the Jewish portion of Warsaw was basically gone decades later.

He had returned years ago to his family’s former neighborhood. “There was nothing left. There was a tiny little re-creation of what had been the old town,” he said in an interview.

Bennet said the Ukraine issue would become more difficult in the days ahead, as support for Kyiv waned in the House. He hinted that he’d block the government funding bill and force a shutdown if Democrats joined the GOP to abandon Ukraine funding.

You know where Bennet stands, Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said: “I think he’s willing to sacrifice himself to make sure this gets done. He laid down the gauntlet. I’m not for folks holding up things, particularly a CR, but I do think he made his point.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) and Murphy raised similar points, according to multiple people in the meeting, but said they would not delay the Senate’s vote on the government funding bill.

“It was clear that the votes weren’t there to get Ukraine into the continuing resolution,” Shaheen said in an interview.

With hours left before the deadline, the Senate required the unanimous consent of all 100 members to pass the legislation in time. Bennet was the lone dissenter. Schumer summoned Bennet to his office just off the Senate floor when the meeting broke up.

We should shut down the government, Bennet said. Let’s give it a day and see whether Republicans – mired in chaos with a brewing leadership fight – fold.

That was counterproductive, Schumer answered, and shutting down the government would only turn Ukraine into an even more partisan issue. A spokesperson for Schumer confirmed the details of the meeting.

The two left the meeting without an agreement.

Bennet would hold up the bill while pushing Schumer to demand a vote on Ukraine aid. He camped out in his office watching college football with Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Angus King (I-Maine) and Coons as Schumer allies rang his phone and urged him to fold. He spoke with White House Chief of Staff Jeff Zients and national security adviser Jake Sullivan multiple times.

Ukraine is a priority for President Biden just like it is for you, they told him, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the calls. But shutting down the government could make it more difficult to get Ukraine funding in the long run.

Bennet lifted his hold on the legislation in exchange for a statement from a bipartisan group of Senate leaders committing to “work to ensure the U.S. government continues to provide critical and sustained security and economic support for Ukraine.”

It was clear, though, that Republicans would still seek a political trade-off to maintain support for the United States’ embattled ally, according to multiple officials who strategized with Bennet. Three weeks later, when Biden submitted a request for $106 billion in defense spending – including $61.4 billion for Ukraine – McConnell said the GOP would entertain only a proposal that was accompanied by substantial changes to one of the thorniest U.S. policies: immigration.

A failure on the border

Ten years ago, Bennet was in his first term, and Congress was on the cusp of approving a major bipartisan immigration overhaul. A “Gang of Eight” senators – four Republicans and four Democrats, including Bennet – envisioned legislation that included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, increased border security, expanded employment verification systems and more.

Their bill passed the Senate, 68-32. The GOP-controlled House, distrustful of the Obama administration, refused to consider the measure. Congress has not passed any significant immigration legislation since.

It was another lesson, lawmakers said, of the intractable politics of the issue. And it became conventional wisdom on Capitol Hill that attaching immigration policy to other legislative priorities was a sure way to doom them.

To Bennet, the experience crystallized the peril of governing by extremes, he said. The ultraconservative tea party wing of the GOP blocked the House’s consideration of the gang’s bill, though the measure probably could have passed with votes from moderate Democrats and Republicans. Now the House Freedom Caucus, the tea party’s more extreme successor, has grown increasingly skeptical about Ukraine. House members of both parties say Ukraine aid could pass the lower chamber with the support of most Republicans, but – crucially – not the archconservatives who control the chamber’s leadership.

The 2013 bill also showed Bennet the failures of centrism, those closest to him say. Some lawmakers aim to draw up policies directly in the ideological middle between the two parties, settling at austere compromise in the name of legislating from the center.

But that strategy, Bennet’s advisers say, could doom Ukraine. Finding a middle ground between permanent and robust funding for Ukraine and cutting off funding to the war-torn country and forcing it into peace negotiations with territorial concessions to Russia – as Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), a leading Kyiv skeptic, suggested recently – misses the fact that Ukraine is running out of bullets.

If Ukraine continues fighting through Christmas, Bennet said, lawmakers should not leave Washington or stop negotiations for the holiday, either. Lankford, Sinema and Murphy continued their talks over the weekend but did not emerge with the framework for immigration legislation, they said. McConnell and Lankford wrote GOP colleagues that a vote to advance any proposal without technical language worked out among negotiators “would not succeed.”

But if the United States appeases Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine, Bennet worries about who might face Russia’s wrath next.

The Bennet-Klejman family still has some of the art from his grandparents’ gallery, Bennet said. In his brother’s apartment in New York hangs a sketch of the Warsaw ghetto that survived the Holocaust. In Bennet’s Colorado home is another work, a print of a family huddled in the London Underground as German bombs rain down.

Chet Strange for The Washington Post
Sen. Michael F. Bennet with a family photo. This month, Bennet threw up procedural hurdles to delay a vote on the National Defense Authorization Act as a protest over missing funds for war-torn Ukraine.